Medieval manuscripts blog

278 posts categorized "Decoration"

15 December 2022

The Lindisfarne Gospels back at the British Library

The Lindisfarne Gospels is back on display in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library, following its loan to the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle from 17 September to 3 December 2022. The exhibition in Newcastle, which was the culmination of a year-long programme of cultural events across the North East, attracted over 56,000 visitors. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost.

The Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels, featuring the large decorated letters 'XPI'
Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

The Lindisfarne Gospels is now on exhibition at the British Library showing the Chi-rho page, a particularly appropriate display for Christmastime. The Chi-rho is the abbreviated Greek name of Christ, spelled Chi-rho-iota, or ‘XPI’. In some early Latin gospel-books, including the Lindisfarne Gospels, there is a large decorated Chi-rho at the beginning of the account of the Incarnation at Matthew 1:18, Christi autem generatio sic erat (‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this way’).

In the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Chi-rho fills up almost the entire page. The insides of the letters are dense with knotted birds and interlace, while the outsides spin with an almost cosmic display of swirls. The letter chi looks as though it is leaping across the page on lithe legs, leaving trails of spirals in its wake – a jump for joy in honour of Christ’s birth.

Detail of the Chi-rho page showing the letter 'X' filled with intricate animal interlace pattern
Detail of the Chi-rho page in the Lindisfarne Gospels: Cotton MS Nero D IV, f. 29r

The Chi-rho page also stars on the front cover of the newly published book about the Lindisfarne Gospels: Eleanor Jackson, The Lindisfarne Gospels: Art, History and Inspiration (London: British Library, 2022). Written by the British Library’s Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, the book is an accessible introduction to the production, decoration and history of the manuscript. It is fully illustrated in colour and is available from the British Library Shop.

Display of books featuring the Chi-rho page on the cover
Display of the newly published book on the Lindisfarne Gospels in the Laing Art Gallery shop

You can also view the Lindisfarne Gospels online on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website, and keep an eye on the blog for more Christmassy Chi-rho content coming soon!

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06 October 2022

Panizzi Lectures – Drawing Conclusions: Diagrams in Medieval Art and Thought

The British Library is delighted to announce the 2022 Panizzi Lecture series which will be given by Jeffrey Hamburger on Drawing Conclusions: Diagrams in Medieval Art and Thought.

Diagrams constitute an omnipresent feature of medieval art and thought. From Antiquity onwards, the forms and procedures of geometric reasoning held a privileged place in the pursuit of truth, the understanding of which remained closely linked to ideals of beauty and perfection.

Drawing on the collections of the British Library, whose holdings provide virtually comprehensive coverage of all ramifications of the diagrammatic tradition, this series of lectures examines the practical, theoretical and aesthetic dimensions of medieval diagrams as matrices of meaning and patterns of thought informing diverse areas of medieval culture.

The lectures will be held in person at the British Library and also live streamed, thanks to the generosity of Jonathan A. Hill, Bookseller.

Lecture 1 : 24th October. Maps of the Mind: Diagrams Medieval and Modern.

Lecture 2: 27th October. The Codex in the Classroom: Practical Dimensions of Medieval Diagrams.

Lecture 3: 1st November. Poetry, Play, Persuasion: The Diagrammatic Imagination in Medieval Art and Thought. Followed by a drinks reception.

Booking is free but required for both in person and online attendance.

Medieval cosmological diagram in the shape of a wheel, with labels in blue and red inks
A cosmological diagram, showing the relationships of elements, directions, temperaments and more, dating from the mid-13th century: Harley MS 3814 A, f. 58v

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01 October 2022

‘Do you like gold? Use it!’: A golden binding by Pierre Legrain

‘Do you like gold? Use it!’ So said the fashion designer and art collector Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) to the interior decorator and designer Pierre Legrain (1889-1929) when he encouraged him to apply his talents to designing modern bindings for Doucet’s modern books. Thus began the fruitful collaboration between a collector and a designer which would produce some of the most striking binding designs of the early 20th century. Following his work for Doucet, Legrain became known as a designer of bookbindings in the early 1920s and worked for a number of different clients. He was widely recognised as the leading designer of French bindings of the early 20th century and produced some of his best and most famous work towards the end of his life.

The cover of a book, made of yellow leather decorated with an art deco design of gold semi-circles and blue and white circles
Gold-tooled book binding by Pierre Legrain on a copy of Colette La vagabonde (Paris, 1927): C.108.w.8

The final case in the British Library’s Gold exhibition contains a number of bookbindings which are all decorated with gold using various techniques. Among them is the most recent object in the exhibition. It is a binding designed by Pierre Legrain in Paris on an edition of La vagabonde by Colette, printed in 1927. The binding was designed by Legrain at the height of his career in the late 1920s and is a great example of the very effective and skilful use of gold tooling. The book is bound in citron goatskin, Legrain’s favourite covering material, and is decorated with blue goatskin onlays and tooled in gold and silver to an all-over art deco design. It is signed by Legrain on the doublure inside the upper cover and belonged to the book collector Major J. R. (John Roland) Abbey (1894-1969) before it was acquired by the British Library in the 1970s.

Pierre Legrain was a designer rather than a bookbinder, and his designs were transferred to bindings by skilled craftsmen, always to the highest standards, first in their studios, and later, once he had become successful and well-known, in his own studio. His style was revolutionary and a departure from all French bookbinding designs produced in previous centuries. His designs were not centred on each cover as had been the case previously, but he instead used both covers and the spine of a book as a blank canvas for which to create a design going all the way across, looking to contemporary art and design for inspiration. Legrain often made use of a ruler and a divider, and his early designs were often geometrical before he moved to more asymmetrical and complicated designs later on in his career.

Spine of the book, with a yellow leather cover tooled with a design of gold lines and blue and white circles, and with a gold-tooled title 'COLETTE LA VAGABOND'
Spine of the gold-tooled book binding by Pierre Legrain (Paris, 1927): C.108.w.8

Legrain was of the opinion that a binding should prepare the reader for the book it encloses. The designs he produced and the way he looked at a binding as a work of art set the tone for how French – and other European – bookbinding design was to develop in the first half of the 20th century.

You can visit Gold in the British Library until 2 October 2022. If you would like a taster of the exhibition or are unable to visit in person, you can watch the virtual exhibition opening on the British Library Player, or purchase the accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World from the British Library shop. 

Karen Limper-Herz

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

14 August 2022

Gold galore in the Harley Golden Gospels

Every one of the glistening treasures in the Gold exhibition will startle and impress our visitors. But there are some more than others that may cause them to catch their breath, especially at the dates on the labels. The Harley Golden Gospels is one of these, a magnificent imperial book, written entirely in gold at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (r. 800-814), perhaps for emperor himself. Amazingly, this treasured book has survived in near-perfect condition for over 1,200 years.

The court of Charlemagne was Christian while modelling itself on the splendours of ancient Rome. In the decoration of the Gospels, evocations of the Roman past are combined with Christian images and symbolism. Though only one page can be displayed in our exhibition, images of every page are online and here we show a selection of the most beautiful among them. 

A detail of the gold writing in the Harley Golden Gospels, taken at an angle so it catches the light
A detail of gold writing in the Harley Golden Gospels, the Carolingian Empire, c.800: Harley MS 2788, f. 25v

Golden writing

While the Harley Golden Gospels is often exhibited for its picture pages, the page on display in the Gold exhibition shows off the manuscript's remarkable golden script. It was very unusual for a manuscript to be written entirely in gold, so this is an outstanding display of wealth and scribal skill. Every text page is also ornamented with a different patterned frame, beautifully painted in colours and gold. This amount of attention lavished on the Gospel text was probably intended to show that it represented the word of God in physical form, with its radiance emphasising the value of divine wisdom.

A text page, written in two columns of gold script, with a patterned frame
Text page with decorated gold border from the Harley Golden Gospels: Harley MS 2788, f. 25v

Canon Tables

Following the biblical prefaces at the beginning of the volume there are eleven pages of canon tables, lists of parallel and unique passages in the Gospels. The lists of Roman numerals are set among classical columns and arches decorated with rich patterning and animals. They may evoke the Roman porphyry columns in Charlemagne’s palace chapel at Aachen. 

Canon tables, lists of numbered passages from the Gospels inside an ornately decorated architectural frame
Canon tables with decorated gold columns and symbols of the four Evangelists: an angel, a lion, an ox and an eagle: Harley MS 2788, f. 6v

Title Page

The title preceding the Gospels is written in gold and silver on a large red medallion surrounded by geometric designs, with the space around it filled by bright turquoise peacocks and colourful roosters.

Title page with a roundel containing an inscription announcing the four Gospels written in silver and gold ink, surrounded by plants and animals
Title page in gold and colours with a full border, Harley MS 2788, f. 12v

Evangelist portraits

Each of the four Gospels is preceded by a full-page portrait of the evangelist, the authors of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. They are each seated on a throne that resembles in shape the throne of Charlemagne at Aachen, and are surrounded by an imperial setting of columns and arches. On the facing page is an elaborate initial and the opening words of the Gospel in large gold capitals

At the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew points to an open book, with an angel above. The opposite page contains the opening words of his Gospel in gold capitals; the large ‘L’ of ‘Liber generationis’ (The book of the generation) is topped with two lion-like creatures in a medallion.

Frontispiece to Matthew’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Matthew’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 13v-14r

Mark dips his pen in an inkwell while holding an open book. The lion above holds an unfurled scroll with the opening words of his Gospel. On the opposite page the first letter ‘I’ of ‘Initium’ (The beginning) has interlace patterns and contains a roundel with a bust of Christ. The name ‘Marcum’ (Mark) appears in red in the central column among the gold lettering. 

Frontispiece to Mark’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Mark’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 71v-72r

The opening page of Luke’s Gospel has a colour palette dominated by warm reds and ochres. Above him, a white ox with wings holds an open book. On the facing page, an angel announces the future birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias, his father, who is at an altar in a round Temple. On either side are roundels of Elizabeth, his wife, and her cousin Mary, mothers of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.

Frontispiece to Luke’s Gospel
Frontispiece to Luke’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and facing incipit page with display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 108v-109r

The evangelist John is a more solid figure than Luke and faces straight out of the page. He is shown with his symbol of a golden eagle, and he, like Mark, dips his pen in an ink well. On the facing page, John the Baptist and two disciples below all point upwards to the Lamb of God, illustrating a passage from John’s Gospel (1: 36-37). The purple inscribed with gold capitals on this page further emphasises the imperial connotations of this work, since purple was especially associated with the Roman emperors (you can read more about gold and purple manuscripts in a previous blogpost).

Frontispiece to John’s Gospel
Frontispiece to John’s Gospel with an evangelist portrait and display capitals: Harley MS 2788, ff. 161v-162r

With such a wealth of shining decorations, this splendid manuscript certainly earns its name as the Harley Golden Gospels.

The British Library’s Gold exhibition runs until 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Chantry Westwell
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

18 July 2022

The golden splendour of the Queen Mary Psalter

Our Gold exhibition includes some of the most justly famous illuminated manuscripts in the Library. One of these, the Queen Mary Psalter, is one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing over 1000 images. Extraordinarily, all of the Psalter’s illustrations were completed by the same person, an artist who is now known as the ‘Queen Mary Master’ after this book.

Illuminated figures against a gold incised background
Detail of figures with gold-decorated backgrounds, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

The Psalter was created in England, probably in London or East Anglia, between 1310 and 1320. We don’t know for whom it was originally created, as there are no contemporary ownership inscriptions or other clues such as coats of arms that would identify the original patron. Nevertheless, the magnitude and quality of its illustrations are certainly grand enough to have been for a royal or aristocratic owner. The manuscript later belonged to Queen Mary I (r. 1553–58), from whom it takes its name. It was presented to her in 1553 by a customs officer, Baldwin Smith, who had prevented its export from England.

You can hear Kathleen Doyle, Lead Curator of Illuminated Manuscripts, talking about the Queen Mary Psalter in the Gold Exhibition Virtual Private View which is available to watch on the British Library Player (starting at 10:28):

For the Gold exhibition, we exhibit an opening which forms a sort of diptych of the Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship, placed together after a blank recto to form a coordinated pairing. Together they provide a commentary on the ancestry and family of Christ. 

An opening from the Queen Mary Psalter, with fine miniatures in colours and gold
The Tree of Jesse and the Holy Kinship, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, ff. 67v-68r

The Tree of Jesse on the left begins at the bottom with the recumbent Jesse, the ancestor of David. A large branch growing out of his torso curves around forming roundels in which his crowned descendants are seated on branches in the central and to either side of the middle king. Four figures with round hats stand laterally above and below the kings, perhaps the four major prophets. The only descendant who is identifiable by an attribute is David, who is playing his harp, directly above Jesse.

Miniature of the Tree of Jesse, showing Jesse lying at the bottom with a tree growing from his body, and figures in roundels within the tree
The Tree of Jesse, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 67v

The iconography of the Jesse Tree is derived from Isaiah’s prophecy that ‘there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root’ (egredietur virga de radice Iesse et flos de radice eius ascendet, Isaiah 11:1), in which the virga or rod is interpreted as a reference to the virgo, or Virgin. However, in this instance the Virgin is not included at the top of the tree, as is usual, but rather she is featured on the opposite page with a more unusual Psalter subject, the Holy Kinship.

Miniature of the Holy Kinship, with four levels each with a row of figures
The Holy Kinship, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

The depiction of the Holy Kinship on the right is shown in registers that are aligned with the levels of Jesse and the kings in circular branches in the Tree of Jesse. At the bottom is St Anne, by tradition the mother of the Virgin, with each of her three husbands, Joachim, Cleophas and Salome. These couples are not identified by a label or caption, but their identities are clear from the figures in the register above them, namely their respective daughters, all called Mary. In this second register the three Marian half-sisters appear with their respective husbands. They are each labelled with their names written beneath them (rather helpfully, as Mary I, Mary II and Mary III).

In the next register the Virgin (labelled Maria Virgo) holds the Christ Child, next to St James the Less, in the centre, one of the sons of Mary Cleophas (II), and with St James the Great, to the right, the son of Mary Salome (III). In the top register Christ appears on his own to the left, here in Majesty, holding a globe of the world, next to the other two sons of Mary Cleophas who became apostles (Sts Simon and Jude), and St John the Evangelist, the other son of Mary Salome to the right.

Illuminated figure against a gold and blue chequerboard background
Detail of figures with gold-decorated backgrounds, from the Queen Mary Psalter: Royal MS 2 B VII, f. 68r

Throughout, the figures are set on a glimmering gold backgrounds, on the right, with incised with intricate patterns, or alternating with coloured diamonds or squares.

For more on the textual basis for and other manuscript examples, see our previous blogpost on the Holy Kinship. To see this interesting pairing in person you can book tickets to the Gold exhibition. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Kathleen Doyle
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

26 May 2022

A marvel in gold and ivory: Queen Melisende’s Psalter

Every manuscript in our current Gold Exhibition is a sublime work of art, so it is hard to choose a ‘star of the show’. But surely one of the most fascinating items on display must be the exquisitely-made Psalter of Queen Melisende, a miraculous survival from the war-torn Crusader kingdoms in the 12th century. It is thought to have been the personal prayer book of the enigmatic Queen Melisende, who ruled the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem jointly with her husband Fulk of Anjou from 1131, and then with her son Baldwin until 1152. Some say it was a gift from Fulk to his wife when they were reconciled following a serious rift over power-sharing.

An illuminated page from the Melisende Psalter, photographed at an angle to show the light glancing off the gold
Page on display in GOLD: Initial 'B'(eatus) of King David playing the harp, in The Psalter of Queen Melisende (Jerusalem, 1131–1143) Egerton MS 1139, f. 23v

The opening pages consist of 24 miniatures of scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary with inscriptions in Greek. The artists, working in the monastery of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, were probably westerners, but were strongly influenced by contemporary Byzantine art, as seen in the style of the figures. One of the artists signs himself ‘Basilius’ (Basil) on the last image of the series.

A child on an altar with two women and two men in robes. A dome behind.
The Presentation of Christ in the Temple, Egerton MS 1139, f. 3r

These images are followed by a calendar with the signs of the Zodiac in roundels. The deaths of Melisende’s parents, King Baldwin II of Jerusalem (d. 1131), and Queen Morphia (d. 1 October, 1126/1127), daughter of an Armenian prince, are recorded in the calendar. On first day of October in the calendar are the words, written in gold ink: ‘Obiit E morphia jer[usa]l[e]m regina’ (The death of Morphia queen of Jerusalem).

Text page with gold writing and a roundel with a scorpion8r
Calendar page for October with a roundel containing the symbol of Scorpio, and the death of Queen Morphia (line 4), Egerton MS 1139 f. 18r

Next are the Psalms, beginning with the magnificent decorated pages on display in the exhibition (ff. 23v-24r). On the left-hand page, the giant letter ‘B’ for ‘Beatus’ is richly filled with interlace, vines, real and imaginary animals, and the figure of King David playing a harp. The design is drawn in black ink and instead of being coloured, it is entirely illuminated in gold. On the right-hand page, the words of Psalm 1 are written in gold capital letters on purple, with bars of gold between the lines of text and a gold border surrounding the page.

Gold panels with a letter B containing a king playing a harp; facing page has text in gold on red.
Pages on display in GOLD: Spectacular manuscripts from around the World: Initial 'B'(eatus) of King David playing the harp opposite a panel with display capitals containing the beginning of Psalm 1, in The Psalter of Queen Melisende (Jerusalem, 1131 – 1143) Egerton MS 1139, f. 23v-24r

The Canticles, the Our Father and the Creeds are followed by a Litany and prayers to the Virgin, the Trinity and various saints, some of whom are pictured.

A Female figure in a hooded red cloak and blue robe with her hands raised; patterned panels on either side
St Agnes at the beginning of a prayer for her to intercede with God, Egerton MS 1139, f. 211r

Only about the size of a modern paperback, this gold-filled treasure-book was once enclosed in an exquisitely carved binding of two ivory panels embellished with turquoises and garnets. These panels still survive, although they are now separated from the manuscript.

The scenes from the life of David on the upper cover are interspersed with cruel battles between the virtues and vices, accompanied by inscriptions in Latin.

Ivory panel with 6 scenes of David in roundels, including of him fighting animals, facing Goliath and playing the harp and scenes of battles between, and birds and foliage in the frame.
The Melisende Psalter, Upper cover with scenes from the life of David: Egerton MS 1139/1

The lower cover is based on the words in the Gospel of Matthew:

‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

It shows emperors in different varieties of imperial Byzantine costumes performing acts of mercy. There is a bird labelled ‘Herodius’ (centre top), which is a possible reference to King Fulk, Melisende’s husband, since the biblical herodius was equated to the fulica, or coot, of the Bestiary tradition.

6 roundels with scenes of crowned figures performing deeds of mercy, with mythical beasts fighting in between.
The Melisende Psalter, lower cover with the six Corporal Works of Mercy: Egerton MS 1139/1

So what do we know of Queen Melisende? She was the eldest daughter and heir of King Baldwin II, and married the rich and powerful Count Fulk of Anjou in 1129. Though he tried to exclude her from the major decisions of the kingdom, she managed to retain the power bequeathed to her by her father and was an important patron of the Church, arts, and books in her kingdom. Later, she quarrelled with her son, Baldwin III, when she refused to hand over power to him entirely. They were later reconciled and Melisende continued to support him until her death in 1161.

A crowned man and a woman in gold cloaks joining hands before a bishop in a palace interior with a crowd of courtiers watching, one with a sword and a bird of prey.
The wedding of Fulk and Melisende in William of Tyre, Histoire d'Outremer (Historia rerum in partibus transmarinis gestarum in French), Royal MS 15 E I, f. 224v

William of Tyre, the contemporary historian, wrote this about the queen:

‘she was a very wise woman, fully experienced in almost all affairs of state business, who completely triumphed over the handicap of her sex so that she could take charge of important affairs’.

With its rich use of gold, the Psalter of Queen Melisende is a splendid expression of this incredible queen’s power.

Our Gold exhibition is open from Friday 20 May - Sunday 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Chantry Westwell

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

17 May 2022

Highlights from our Gold exhibition

Our new exhibition Gold opens this week. It explores the use of gold in books and documents across twenty countries, seventeen languages, and five major world religions. We show how people have used gold to communicate profound value, both worldly and spiritual, across cultures and time periods. All 50 of the objects in the exhibition are star items. But to whet your appetite, here are some of our highlights:

The Harley Golden Gospels

The exhibition begins with three sacred texts from different world religions written entirely in gold. Writing in gold ink was expensive and required great scribal skill, so entire books written in gold are very rare. One of these is the Harley Golden Gospels, made at the court of Charlemagne, who ruled over the majority of western and central Europe as Holy Roman Emperor at the beginning of the 8th century. In addition to the elegant gold script, every text page has a different elaborate gold border. 

Detail of gold script in the Harley Golden Gospels
The Harley Golden Gospels, Carolingian Empire, c. 800: Harley MS 2788, ff. 25v (detail)

Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an

Sharing the case with the Gospels is another sacred manuscript written entirely in gold, one of the volumes of Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an. This splendid manuscript is named after the ruler who commissioned it, Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Jashnagir, who later became the Mamluk Sultan Baybars II. The Mamluk Sultanate was the greatest Islamic empire of the Middle Ages, occupying lands from Egypt to Syria and across the Red Sea. This seven-volume Qur’an was copied in Cairo by the calligrapher Muhammad ibn al-Wahid, and the golden rosettes and marginal ornaments were the work of a team of artists headed by the master illuminator, Abu Bakr, also known as Sandal.

A page from Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, written in gold script
Sultan Baybars’ Qur’an, Cairo, 1304-06: Add MS 22408, f. 92r

Malayalam treaty on gold

There is a long tradition in South Asia of using durable metals for the recording of important legal and political texts. This treaty, written in Malayalam, details a defensive alliance between the powerful Zamorin or ruler of Calicut, on the southern Indian Malabar coast, and the Dutch. It is inscribed in eight lines on a strip of gold over two metres long. 

A treaty in Malayalam written on a rolled strip of gold
Treaty between Calicut and the Dutch, India, 1691: MS Malayalam 12

Maunggan gold plates

Dating to the 5th–6th centuries, these two inscribed gold plates are amongst the oldest items in the exhibition. The plates start with a well-known chant, Ye dhamma, which refers to the core teachings of Buddhism: suffering, what causes it, and how to end it. They were originally rolled and placed at the base of a stupa, symbolising the presence of the Buddha and endowing the monument with sacredness. 

Maunggan gold plates with inscribed texts
Maunggan gold plates, Myanmar, 5th-6th centuries: Or 5340 A & Or 5340 B

The Queen Mary Psalter

Gold was also used for illuminating pictures in luxury manuscripts. The Queen Mary Psalter is one of the most extensively illustrated biblical manuscripts ever produced, containing over 1000 images. Many of its beautiful illuminations are set against backgrounds of gold leaf decorated with intricate incised and painted patterns. The manuscript is known after Queen Mary I, to whom it was presented in the 16th century after a customs official prevented its export from England.

Detail of illuminated figures in the Queen Mary Psalter
The Queen Mary Psalter, London, early 14th century: Royal MS 2 B vii, f. 68r

The Benedictional of Æthelwold

When St Æthelwold, bishop of Winchester, commissioned this book, he specified that it should be ‘well adorned and filled with various figures decorated with manifold beautiful colours and with gold’. True to Æthelwold’s instruction, the manuscript is richly decorated with images of biblical scenes and saints, such as St Æthelthryth of Ely here, clothed in gold and set in an opulent golden frame.

St Æthelthryth, dressed in gold and surrounded by a gold frame
St Æthelthryth in the Benedictional of St Æthelwold, Winchester, c. 971–984: Add MS 49598, f. 90v

The Golden Haggadah

Haggadah is the text for Passover Eve telling the story of the Jews’ exodus from slavery in Egypt. Because of the tooled gold-leaf backgrounds of the illustrations, this lavish manuscript is known as the Golden Haggadah. It contains 14 full pages devoted to scenes from Genesis and Exodus. For example, in the top left Joseph dreams of his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowing to his upright central sheaf, all set against the intricate cross-hatched golden background.

Scenes from Genesis in the Golden Haggadah
The Golden Haggadah, Northern Spain, probably Barcelona, c. 1320: Add MS 27210, ff. 4v–5r

The Psalter of Queen Melisende

Another manuscript that features impressive gold illumination is the Melisende Psalter. It was probably made for Queen Melisende (died 1161), who reigned in the Crusader kingdom of Jerusalem jointly with her husband Fulk of Anjou, and then with her son. Unusually, the initial ‘B’ (for Beatus, meaning blessed) at the beginning of the first Psalm is decorated entirely in gold with black line drawing.

A large golden letter 'B', containing intricate patterns and the figure of King David harping
The Psalter of Queen Melisende, Jerusalem, between 1131 and 1143: Egerton MS 1139, f. 23v

These amazing manuscripts are only a small sample of the fifty golden books and documents that you can see on display in the exhibition. We hope you are as excited for the opening as we are!

Our Gold exhibition is open from Friday 20 May - Sunday 2 October 2022. You can read more about the exhibition in our previous blogpost and you can book your tickets online now. An accompanying book Gold: Spectacular Manuscripts from Around the World is available from the British Library shop.

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

Supported by:

BullionVault logo

The exhibition is supported by the Goldhammer Foundation and the American Trust for the British Library, with thanks to The John S Cohen Foundation, The Finnis Scott Foundation, the Owen Family Trust and all supporters who wish to remain anonymous.

05 May 2022

We’re going on a bear hunt

It's not every day you recognise a bear in the Library. But in a Book of Hours we recently catalogued as part of the Harley cataloguing project, we came across a furry figure who seemed strangely familiar. He is a rather plump little bear, clambering with some determination up a stalk of foliage in one of the richly decorated margins. He reaches up with one paw, his belly towards us, his head raised to reveal the underside of his snout. Once seen, such a cute bear is hard to forget.

Illustration of a climbing bear in a manuscript margin
Illustration of a climbing bear in the margins of a Book of Hours, Ghent-Tournai area, c. 1425-50: Harley MS 2433, f. 76v (detail)

And we had seen him before. We recognised the bear from an engraved playing card by an anonymous artist known as the Master of the Playing Cards. So how did he end up in this manuscript margin, and what can he tell us about this Book of Hours?

A printed playing card featuring nine illustrations of beasts, including the climbing bear in the centre
The ‘nine of beasts’ engraved playing card, by the Master of the Playing Cards: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Reserve Boite FOL-KH-25 (1-2), Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

The Master of the Playing Cards

The Master of the Playing Cards was an early printmaker active in southwestern Germany from the 1430s to the 1450s. This artist seems to have specialised in engravings (prints made from metal plates), as opposed to the more common woodcut prints of the period. Although their real name is no longer known, the artist is known after their most famous work: a set of finely engraved playing cards.

Playing cards were introduced into Europe from Asia in the 14th century. In the Middle Ages, the suits in a deck of cards were not fixed as hearts, diamonds, clubs and spades as today, but came in all kinds of designs. The surviving cards from the Master’s deck are suits of flowers, birds, deer, beasts of prey and wild men. Each card is printed with beautifully studied illustrations of the subject in a variety of inventive poses.

A printed playing card, featuring seven illustrations of deer
The ‘seven of deer’ engraved playing card, by the Master of the Playing Cards: Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, Reserve Boite FOL-KH-25 (1-2), Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

Playing cards as manuscript models

Almost as soon as they were printed, artists saw the potential of the Master’s playing cards for book illumination. It was common practice to speed up the process of decorating books by copying designs from models. With their appealing subjects, skilful drawing and small size, the playing card figures were perfect for adorning the margins of books. Figures based on the Master’s playing cards have been identified in over twenty manuscripts from the 1430s onwards, originating in centres across Europe.

One example in the British Library’s collection is the Saluces Hours, made in the duchy of Savoy (modern-day southeast France and northwest Italy) in several stages between the 1440s and 1460s. You can read more in our previous blogpost, Antoine de Lonhy and the Saluces Hours. The playing card figures in this manuscript are from the wild man and deer suits, and they date from the earliest campaign of work, attributed to the artist Peronet Lamy in the 1440s.

A table showing images of two wild men and a deer from the Saluces Hours, next to two wildmen and a deer from the Master of the Playing Cards
Left: figures from the margins of the Saluces Hours, Add MS 27697, ff. 13r and 19r. Right: figures from engraved playing cards by the Master of the Playing Cards. Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

The playing card figures were not only copied onto the pages of manuscripts. Some copies of the Gutenberg Bible, the earliest full-scale work printed in Europe using moveable type, were hand-painted with figures based on the Master of the Playing Cards. Both the printing and illumination were done in Mainz, Germany. Here is an example with our climbing bear:

A page from a Gutenburg Bible, with illuminated borders including the climbing bear
Illuminated Bible in Latin, printed by Johann Gutenberg & Johann Fust, in Mainz, c. 1455: Princeton University Library, vol. 1, leaf 161, gathering 17/3r, Source Digital PUL
 
Detail of the climbing bear from the Gutenburg Bible
The climbing bear from an illuminated Gutenberg Bible, Mainz, c. 1455: Princeton University Library, Source Digital PUL

The bear moves to Flanders

Our Book of Hours (Harley MS 2433) is another instance of a book decorated with figures from the Master of the Playing Cards. Testament to the wide geographic influence of the playing cards, this manuscript was not made in Savoy or Germany, but in Flanders. We do not know who the original owners were because the coats of arms which appear in the manuscript’s margins remain unidentified. Yet there are several clues which suggest that it was probably made for use around Ghent. The Hours of the Virgin are a variant version for the Use of Tournai, a diocese which in the Middle Ages included Ghent. Several of the texts are in Middle Dutch, the main language of Ghent (but not of French-speaking Tournai). The calendar and litany contain a host of Flemish saints, including several especially associated with Ghent, such as Sts Pharaildis, Amand, Amalbergha and Bavo.

An illuminated page from the Book of Hours
An illuminated page from the beginning of the Hours of the Virgin, with a historiated initial of the Virgin and Child and a decorated border, from a Book of Hours (Diocese of Tournai, perhaps Ghent, mid-15th century): Harley MS 2433, f. 25r

A series of luxurious illuminated initials and borders are all that remain of the manuscript’s decorative scheme. Originally it probably also contained full-page miniatures, but sadly these have been cut out leaving visible stubs of parchment in some margins. Yet the remaining decoration provides plenty to admire. As well as the climbing bear, several other animals roaming in the manuscript’s lush margins are recognisable from the Master of the Playing Cards’ deck:

A table of animal illustrations from the Harley Book of Hours, next to illustrations from the Master of the Playing Cards, showing a climbing bear, a crouching bear, a walking lion and a preening bird
Left: figures from the margins of the Book of Hours, Harley MS 2433, ff. 76v, 68r. Right: figures from engraved playing cards by the Master of the Playing Cards. Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF

These creatures can provide further clues about the origins and connections of our Book of Hours. If we look up other manuscripts from Ghent-Tournai that are known to feature designs from the Master of the Playing Cards, we soon come across a close match. An illuminated manuscript recording the Privileges and Statutes of Ghent (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 2583) contains borders similar to those in the Harley Book of Hours. It was probably begun as a commission for some of the leading citizens of Ghent and then completed for Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy, after he defeated the city of Ghent at the Battle of Gavere in 1453. The illumination is attributed to an artist known as the Master of the Ghent Privileges. The borders include familiar faces from the Master of the Playing Cards, including our friend the climbing bear:

A page from the Ghent Privileges
A page from the Ghent Privileges, with a miniature of Johanna, Countess of Flanders and Hainault, and Thomas of Savoy, with a decorated border of acanthus leaves, flowers, birds, animals and coats of arms: Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 2583, f. 13r (reproduced from digitised black and white microfilm). Source data.onb.ac.at
 
A detail from the border of the Ghent Privileges, showing the climbing bear
Detail of a climbing bear from a border in the Ghent Privileges, Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 2583, f. 13r (reproduced from digitised black and white microfilm). Source data.onb.ac.at

Yet the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges also share marginal designs that are not based on the Master of the Playing Cards:

A table of images from the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges, showing a goat-like creature, a bat, a winged bipedal elephant, and an owl
Left: figures from the margins of the Book of Hours, Harley MS 2433. Right: figures Ghent Privileges, Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. 2583 (reproduced from digitised black and white microfilm), Source data.onb.ac.at

This combination of shared motifs suggests that the designs in the Harley Book of Hours and the Ghent Privileges were probably not copied directly from the playing cards. Instead, it is likely that they were copied from an intermediary source, such as a model book containing designs gathered from a variety of sources, including the playing card deck.

Although the Ghent Privileges is on a grander scale than the Harley Book of Hours, the margins of the two manuscripts have enough in common that they may have been made by the same or a closely related workshop. The climbing bear also appears in other manuscripts attributed to the Master of the Ghent Privileges, such as the Missal of Jean de Lannoy (Lille, Médiathèque Municipale Jean Lévy, MS 626, f. 174v, image here), and a leaf from a Book of Hours in a private collection (image here).

Four climbing bears from different books next to each other
The climbing bear in four different versions. Left: from the Book of Hours, Harley MS 2433, f. 76v. Centre left: from an engraved playing card by the Master of the Playing Cards, BnF, Source gallica.bnf.fr / BnF. Centre right: from an illuminated Gutenberg Bible, Princeton University Library, Source Digital PUL. Right: from the Ghent Privileges, Vienna ÖNB, Cod. 2583, f. 13r, Source data.onb.ac.at.

Previously, no one had noticed that the Book of Hours with the shelfmark Harley MS 2433 had marginal decorations based on the Master of the Playing Cards, or that it shares models with the Ghent Privileges. Who would have thought that one little bear could lead us such a long way?

You can read about some of the other discoveries from the Harley Cataloguing Project in our previous blogposts: deciphering an English exorcism manual, a newly discovered manuscript from Byland Abbey and the lost miracles of St Wulfsige of Evesham.

Eleanor Jackson
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval


Further reading:

Anne H. van Buren and Sheila Edmunds, 'Playing Cards and Manuscripts: Some Widely Disseminated Fifteenth-Century Model Sheets', The Art Bulletin, 56: 1 (March 1974), pp. 12-30.

Gregory Clark, Made in Flanders: The Master of the Ghent Privileges and Manuscript Painting in the Southern Netherlands in the Time of Philip the Good (Turnhout, 2000).

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